War correspondent Marie Colvin’s fearless life comes to the big screen

By | November 9, 2018

What she wanted most when she got out of the hospital was a vodka martini and a cigarette.

Marie Colvin had been in Sri Lanka covering the long-running civil war. In 2001, she sneaked into the northern Vanni area — a stronghold of the rebel Tamil Tigers and a place where journalists were forbidden by the government from traveling.

One night, as she and her group were being smuggled back across the border, they were set upon by government troops. Colvin was lying in an open field with just weeds and darkness for cover.

Gunfire exploded overhead and a grenade suddenly burst nearby. Shrapnel ripped through Colvin’s eye and chest.

“Blood was pouring from my eye and mouth onto the dirt,” she later wrote. “I felt a profound sadness that I was going to die.”

But she did not die. She was eventually taken to a hospital, where she stubbornly clashed with a doctor who wanted to remove her eye, before bolting the country.

She kept her eye but not the sight in it. From then on, she wore an eye patch, which quickly became her trademark and strengthened her reputation as a war correspondent with few equals.

“I think that she always went in further and stayed longer,” Lindsey Hilsum, a British reporter and close friend of Colvin’s, told The Post. “I think that she had that journalistic need to see where history is, to be first.”

Colvin’s luck ran out in Syria in 2012, where she was killed at 56. Now, six years after her death, she is back in the spotlight with two new movies recounting her life.

The dramatization, “A Private War,” now in theaters, stars Rosamund Pike as the husky-voiced journalist. “Under the Wire,” out Nov. 16, is more immediate and raw. The documentary chronicles Colvin’s last days, assembling a treasure trove of you-are-there footage shot by rebels, her cameraman and others.

“She clearly did things her own way. ‘Maverick’ might be the word,” said “Under the Wire” director Chris Martin, a former journalist who once met Colvin in Jerusalem. “She had an extremely sharp, clear focus about what the story was.”

The casket carrying the body of Marie Colvin is carried into St. Dominic's Catholic Church in Oyster Bay, N.Y. during her funeral in 2012 .
The casket carrying the body of Marie Colvin is carried into St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in Oyster Bay, N.Y. during her funeral in 2012 .AFP/Getty Images

Colvin liked to say that war reporting wasn’t about armaments or troops. It was about the innocent civilians whose lives were being destroyed.

“Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death and trying to bear witness,” Colvin said in 2010. “And, yes, it means taking risks.”

Although she reported from places so dangerous that she was forced to mark her clothing with her blood type in case tragedy struck, her beginnings were more commonplace.

She grew up one of five children in Oyster Bay, LI. From an early age, she had a love of storytelling.

“My parents were both teachers, and with five kids we didn’t travel internationally,” her sister Cat Colvin told The Post. “We were all interested in the world and international issues. Marie would tell me these stories of the world that neither of us had visited.”

She loved the adventure of sailing, often heading out to find a hidden sandbar.

At 18, she and a friend hitchhiked through Mexico. After one car broke down, they came upon a poor mining town where the workers were making 6 cents an hour.

“I think this moment was profound and the start of something for Marie,” her friend Jerelyn Hanrahan would later say.

She graduated high school in 1974 and headed to Yale, where she was a memorable figure, often dressing in all black, chain-smoking cigarettes and downing dozens of cups of coffee a day. It was there she discovered journalism, writing for the school newspaper and magazine.

After graduating with a degree in anthropology, she soon landed a job as a reporter for United Press International. She pushed to be sent overseas and was eventually given the job of Paris bureau chief.

In 1986, she became the Middle East correspondent for London’s Sunday Times, where she would spend the rest of her career.

“She was always trying to prove herself to her father,” said Hilsum, whose new book is “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin.” “When her father died [in 1976], she wrote in her diary about wanting to make him proud. She was always clashing with him as a teenager.”

Colvin quickly made a name for herself interviewing world leaders. She sat with Libya’s Moammar Khadafy multiple times, often questioning him while simultaneously fending off his advances.

She landed a hard-to-get interview with Yasser Arafat by smoking and drinking with his aides late into the night.

“She stood up to [the leaders] but was still very charming,” Hilsum said. “She wasn’t afraid to challenge. There was a time when she challenged Arafat, and his bodyguards cocked their weapons.”

She soon found herself in the world’s hot spots. She was pinned down by Russian troops in Chechnya in 1999, barely escaping via an icy mountain pass. She kept a canary in her Iraq hotel room during the first Gulf War to detect poison gas.

Her most famous exploit came in East Timor in 1999, when she and a group of refugees were barricaded in a UN compound besieged by the Indonesian army.

Most of the other journalists fled, but Colvin stayed and kept reporting. Eventually, the government relented and evacuated the refugees. Colvin is credited with saving some 1,500 lives.
All the while, Colvin cultivated a sense of black humor.

“She was aware of the danger,” Cat Colvin said. “The sense of humor was a way to deal with the fear.”

“I’m in Baghdad,” she once wrote to a friend. “You would love it here — it’s just like New York, except without the bars, restaurants, shops, telephones, electricity or taxis.”

Marie Colvin (extreme left) in a photograph taken during 1987 when she smuggled her way into the besieged Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp near Beirut, Lebanon.
Marie Colvin (extreme left) in a photograph taken during 1987 when she smuggled her way into the besieged Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp near Beirut, Lebanon.Getty Images

She also lived life fully outside of work.

“She had a joie de vivre about her, there’s no doubt about it,” Martin said. “That’s what makes her such an interesting character.”

She often stayed at the nicest hotels. She loved expensive clothes and got her hair cut at a fancy London salon. She was also known for her interesting parties, to which she sometimes wore a rhinestone-encrusted eye patch.

“There were always lots of journalists and politicians at her parties. She called me once and said, ‘Colin Firth is going to be there,’ ” Hilsum said. “She liked celebrity and being part of that scene.”

The merriment may have hidden a darkness, however.

“She saw things she said no one should ever have to see, like how small a body shrinks when it’s burned,” Cat Colvin said. “Her stories changed from when she was young from being lighthearted and optimistic to being darker.”

After her eye injury, Colvin sought treatment for PTSD.

‘She had a joie de vivre about her, there’s no doubt about it. That’s what makes her such an interesting character.’

The journalist’s “aura of joie de vivre” also masked “the fragile woman who would have loved to be happy in love,” her friend Katrina Heron said at Colvin’s funeral.

Colvin was married and divorced three times — twice to British journalist Patrick Bishop and once to Juan Carlos Gumucio, a hard-drinking Bolivian correspondent who later killed himself.

Colvin’s final days came in February 2012. She and photographer Paul Conroy were smuggled into Syria — at one point crawling through a miles-long drainpipe — to reach Baba Amr, a center of resistance to dictator Bashar al-Assad in the city of Homs. The area was being relentlessly pounded by government artillery.

Colvin visited a basement where hundreds of mostly women and children were hiding in darkness, with malnourished kids sleeping three to a dirty mattress and a baby subsisting on sugar water.
“Sickening,” Colvin wrote on Facebook. “[I] cannot understand how the world can stand by … feeling helpless.”

With the shelling growing more intense and snipers perched on nearby rooftops, Hilsum spoke to Colvin from the war zone.

“I asked her what her exit strategy was,” Hilsum said. “ ‘I haven’t got one,’ she said.”

On Feb. 22, Colvin was hurriedly packing to leave when a shell hit the town’s ramshackle media center where she had been staying. She and another journalist were killed and several others severely injured.

Her funeral at a Long Island church drew some 300 mourners.

Colvin might have been embarrassed by the outpouring. She shrugged off compliments and downplayed her bravery, simply insisting, “This is what we do.”

“Probably every journalist sets out with the hope to make a difference,” Martin said. “And I think she did.”

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